The other day, Alana - evidently inspired by her recent marathon success, but also her awareness of untapped potential - asked me: “How do I get faster?” Well, gee, Alana, it’s funny you should ask, because I happen to have been considering this question myself lately. And, in light of the fact that I’ve recently begun a training block focused on developing my top-end speed, I thought I’d attempt to answer that question in a two-part blog post: first, I’ll attempt to answer Alana’s question in the most abstract way possible, and then I’ll lay out my own practical answer to it in the form of my own personalized training plan for the next few months.
So, how does one get faster? For several reasons, I have always elected to be my own coach. I’ve never had the spare cash to hire a personal coach; I’ve never had the time to commit myself to the schedule of a team or club; for better or worse, I am “Renaissance Vox,” and I have consistently made my preference for learning more and knowing more clear enough. Moreover, the more I learn about the human body, and especially about my human body, the more phenomenological a science (as opposed to an empirical one) it seems. In 2015, when even Alex Hutchinson concedes that feelings are still more accurate than data, it is both a scientific and a political statement to say that there is no one more capable of telling you about your body than yourself.
Still, there’s plenty to learn from the experiences of others. To that end, over the course of the past year, I’ve made an attempt to familiarize myself with the philosophies of a variety of prominent coaches and exercise physiologists. The diversity of their views is staggering: every one of them seems to have a pet issue that they believe is the key to successful training and racing. And that’s why - just like with different schools of critical thought, different schools of singing, different political ideologies - you need to act as your own coach. It’s your job to compile and assess that corpus of research, to distribute its choicest fruits as necessitated by your highly unique individual situation.
Run more mileage to score economy gains. There is much to be said for the benefits of simply running more. Arthur Lydiard, the grandfather of the “LSD” approach, improved even the performances of Olympian 800-meter runners with high mileage aerobic work. Philip Maffetone and Matt Fitzgerald also champion the philosophy of facilitating your body’s physiological adaptations through a large quantity of easy running. Statistical data shows a correlation between weekly mileage and marathon performance. Besides physiological adaptations (larger/stronger mitochondria, increased capillarization, stronger heart, more efficient oxygen transportation throughout the body), the gains in running economy from the practice of running as a skill are huge. Paula Radcliffe’s marathon time went down even as her VO2 max lowered due to economy alone. If you want to be a good distance runner, you have to run a lot of slow, easy miles. Perhaps 80% of your training volume should be run at a heart rate below your MAF number (180 - age).
Boost your VO2 max. Your VO2 max, your maximum volume of oxygen uptake, is the product of your genetics, body weight, and fitness. By performing interval training at your velocity of VO2 max (vVO2), you can increase your body’s ability to take in and use oxygen. vVO2 roughly corresponds to the pace at which you might race a 5K, and the pace at which you run intervals. Pioneering VO2 researcher Jack Daniels suggests a 1:1 work:rest ratio when performing VO2 intervals. (e.g. 2 minutes at 5K pace, 2 minutes easy recovery jog)
Run at lactate threshold. Hard work produces lactic acid in your muscles. Lactate threshold is the point at which the body can no longer clear this byproduct quickly enough to prevent it from increasing exponentially, at which point you will start to feel not good at all. But if you designate some of your training to running at or just below your vLT (velocity of lactate threshold), you can raise your LT and run faster for longer. vLT is said to equate to the pace at which you could race for one hour, so for a lot of runners, vLT is a few seconds slower than 10K pace. When people talk about tempo runs, they are usually talking about 20-30 minutes of running somewhere in the neighborhood of vLT. An example of a tempo workout that would work your lactate threshold might be: 15-20 minutes easy running to warm up, 20 minutes at vLT, 15-20 mins easy running to cool down.
Work your top-end speed. The benefits associated with running faster than vVO2 (5K pace) are both muscular and neuromuscular - running 200m or 400m repeats at your mile race pace may not directly improve your endurance, so your marathon performance might not be affected. However, when you become capable of running a faster mile, suddenly vVO2 will feel easier. When your vVO2 gets lowered, you’ll be able to sustain vLT for a longer period of time, at which point your endurance will increase. Jeff Galloway believes that performance in a 1-mile race / time trial is directly correlated with performance in all longer races, even the marathon. Maybe that’s why Mo Farah (double olympic gold in 5K and 10K, and a 59:22 half-marathoner) can run 100m in 11 seconds in training...
Run at aerobic threshold. This is a little more contentious. Maffetone believes that all training, 100% of your runs, should take place at or just below the aerobic threshold. An ardent believer in the efficacy of training with a heart-rate monitor, he says you should find out your MAF number (180 - age) and then run as close to that HR as you can in every run. In practice, this is quite similar to running at your marathon pace every day, whereas most coaches acknowledge that MP is more stressful than easy-pace running, and accordingly you should only run at MP in order to “rehearse” race pace and build confidence. On the other hand, Maffetone doesn’t prescribe any speedwork, so there is a tradeoff in terms of physical stress. When I trained for my first marathon, I unknowingly followed Maffetone’s advice, instinctively, and I will say this: it made for a very predictable and comfortable race, most of the way. Perhaps it is intuitive for a first-time marathoner to train at race pace every day, because it is so much a matter of merely making it through such a great distance for the first time. As a runner becomes more fit, MP gets further and further away from easy pace: my MP is still by definition my aerobic max, but I feel like it would be pretty hard to run at every day.
Periodization. Cohesive training plans trump week-by-week improvisation because the order with which you string together workouts can make you more or less likely to succeed. According to current research, periodization has a small but measurable impact on performance, with the so-called “traditional” approach (beginning with tempo work and longer intervals, progressing to shorter interval and repetition work) having a slight edge over the “reverse” approach… at some distances. Jack Daniels implicitly championed the “reverse” approach in Daniels’ Running Formula by emphasizing repetitions early on, then intervals, and finally tempo before a scheduled race. Leading researcher Stephen Seiler has acknowledged that the reverse approach may be more effective, depending on the desired outcome (i.e. it may be better for marathoners). But whether you do it forwards or backwards, the syntax of your training plan seems to have an impact.
Get faster by strength training. While strength training is no substitute for running, certain exercises will make you faster, especially ab work, squats, and lunges. Research shows that the plyometric variants of the squat and lunge will give you even more of a boost by lowering the energy cost of running and improving your muscle power. So, Brian MacKenzie of Crossfit Endurance fame has a point… but, if you’re going to run an ultra, you probably shouldn't try it on box jumps alone.
Work on your breathing. The quality (depth) and quantity (rhythmic frequency) of your breathing plays a role in how well you run. If you’ve never paid much attention to your breathing while running, it can be a productive exercise in maximizing the use to which you’re putting your air. Shallow breathing with less engagement of the diaphragm (it should go into your belly, not just your chest) will negatively impact both your singing and your running. I first started experimenting with rhythmic breathing when Daniels’ Running Formula said all elite runners breathe with a 2/2 pattern in perfect rhythm with their foostrikes (2 steps to the inhalation, 2 to the exhalation), and I found that paying attention to these patterns did make me more efficient. I’ve spent a lot of time on easy runs with 3/3 and even 4/4 breathing out of a belief that if I can use even less air, it will force my body to use the oxygen I do give it more economically (and also because it encourages you to take an easy day truly easy), but the jury is still out on that one. Right now I’m trying out the rhythms suggested by Budd Coates in Breathing on Air: 3/2 for easier runs and 2/1 for harder efforts. According to Coates, using these seemingly asymmetrical meters will actually ensure that your body is not asymmetrically stressed; impact is harder on the first footstrike of an exhalation, so most runners who use a 2/2 rhythm will absorb more impact on one side of their body, usually the right. So apparently, paying attention to your breathing can not only maximize your aerobic power, but also safeguard against injury.
Optimize your footwear. There is no one shoe that is better for every runner, but we can all agree that some work better for us as individuals than others. In my case, a minimal drop seems to keep my form honest, a pretty light weight (usually indicating a low profile) seems to allow me quicker turnover, and a small amount of cushioning is sufficient to prevent injury. I think that shoe choice is often a big factor in cadence (the number of times your foot hits the ground per minute, a number which we are often told should optimally be 180). If your cadence is much lower and/or you’re experiencing knee pain, I think a cautious foray into minimalist footwear can prove beneficial. If you have foot pain, then maybe you need more cushioning.
Race more, or race less. Some people stress themselves out trying to complete too many races, and it has a detrimental effect on their health and their training. Others might be able to break out of a training rut and get inspired by racing more frequently. I find that having several races per year (but not more than 10-12) keeps me focused on my goals, in touch with objective markers of my fitness, and motivated to keep improving. Some of my favorite races have low registration costs ($15 for a USATF-certified half-marathon with a post-race feast? It’s amazing what not giving out a crappy t-shirt can do), and with the right mindset, a small-town race can be an even better way to test your fitness than some bloated big-city glamour fest where you’re tightly packed into a starting corral with hundreds of other runners at your pace.
Eliminate stress. Another of Maffetone’s best takeaways is that physical, psychological, and even emotional stress is often the source of a training plateau. Stress can be physical stress that comes from too much anaerobic training, eating poorly, taking in too much caffeine/alcohol or other drugs, or not getting enough sleep. Elite marathoner Matt Llano reminds us that our performance can also suffer from emotional stress - in his case, from struggling with his suppressed sexuality. Be good to yourself and be in touch with what is stressing you out… and you will flourish.
Consume performance-enhancing substances. Some are foods, some are drugs, some are legal, some are not (and some are banned but legal, while some are not banned). I don’t believe in using anything that isn’t legally available to everyone else, but there are various things you can put in your body that have some documented effect on endurance abilities. Beet juice, watermelon, caffeine, amphetamines, anything that boosts testosterone, post-workout and pre-bedtime protein supplements, creatine (not so much for endurance as for strength), fish oil, racetams, various vitamins. Some of it is the dark arts (thyroid medications, prednisone, EPO…), and some of it is just common sense. Probably the best, most legal, and most readily available performance enhancers out there are fruits and vegetables… I mean, this guy is hilarious, but he has a point. Did you know that spinach contains natural phytochemicals that boost muscle growth? There are all kinds of things we haven’t even discovered yet in foods we eat every day.
Know yourself. To reiterate what I said at the beginning of this list, the best way to implement any training strategy or lifestyle tweak is just to pay attention to what works for you, which means a state of constant and equanimous observation of your body and mind. Any one of the previous twelve things could help you get faster, but some of them will work better for you as an individual. Maybe you don’t want to increase your mileage - fine, you can probably improve a lot without doing so. Maybe certain foods work for you and others don’t - cool, pay attention to what they are. Concentrate on what you can do, and you’ll get there!
Next time, see how I’m implementing some of these things in my current, speed-focused training plan for a few upcoming 5Ks and similar distances.